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I have been wondering lately as to what it is that gives every nation on Earth the right to exist.

Throughout human history, at any point in time, the Earth has been a mixed bag of nations that were peaceful towards its neighbors and nations that were aggressive towards their neighbors.

Looking at it from a philosophical standpoint, did North Korea have a right to exist as a nation while it was waging war against South Korea during 1950-1954? Or did Germany have a right to exist as a nation while it was waging war against its European neighbors and the Allied nations during 1939-1945? Or did ancient Greece have the right to exist as a nation while Alexander the Great was conquering the nations around it from 334 B.C. to 323 B.C?

If it were possible for someone to go back in time and for him/her to interview people in North Korea during 1952, or interview people in Germany in 1942, or interview people in Greece in 330 B.C., they would all likely have supported the belief that their nation had a right to exist, despite their aggressive stance towards their neighbors.

In contrast, if this time traveler were to have also interviewed the people in the nations that surrounded North Korea, Germany, and ancient Greece, they would have likely made a philosophical argument(s) as to why their aggressive neighbors should lose their right to exist as nations.

Does every nation on Earth have a right to exist or do only peaceful nations have a right to exist?

Should nations have the right to exist, even if they oppress their citizens and threaten their neighbours?

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6 Answers 6

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The expression “to have a right” can be misleading. Because juridical obligations and juridical rights are not discovered like a law of nature or like a treasure in the earth. Juridical obligations and juridical rights are negotiated between the members of a community, ranging from local to international communities, and than codified in contracts.

One denotes self-determination of nations “the concept that nations (groups of people united by ethnicity, language, geography, history, or other common characteristics) should be able to determine their political future.”

This principle is supported by the UNO charta as one of the highest sources for international law. The UNO binds all members to the human rights. In particular, it prohibits any violence in solving international conflics, see Article 2.4:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

I do not know any passage where the UNO charta denies to any nation the right to exist.

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Self-determination, is what gives every nation on Earth the right to exist.

Conflicts and wars between nations arise in history as part of their evolution. Saying that a nation does not have the right to exist, is like saying that you know how evolution is to be done, or what is it's purpose.

Any belief that deviates from the principle of self-determination is very dangerous.

Besides that :

Self-determination is a core principle of international law, arising from customary international law, but also recognized as a general principle of law, and enshrined in a number of international treaties.

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  • "Conflicts and wars between nations arise in history as part of their evolution" What is that supposed to mean. Makes wars sound kinda "natural" or even inevitable when that isn't usually the case.
    – haxor789
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:03
  • @haxor789, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thucydides_Trap Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:06
  • That sounds very sketchy and more like a very recent political excuse for aggression, than like some scientific inevitability. I mean for a start "rivaling" can already be seen as conflict, so it's like "wars lead to more violent wars"... Also that still doesn't mean that the hegemonial power didn't have other options.
    – haxor789
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:11
  • @haxor789, Thucydides Trap is 2500 years old. Thucydides was the first to analyze history in a scientific way and the dynamics of war. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:29
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    No Thucydides made that assertion 2500 years ago, being 2500 years old would mean that people had taken that serious and tried to prove or disprove it but apparently it's just repopularized recently by people who want a war with China and like to avoid having arguments of necessity by trying to bypass that with some sketchy argument from a guy 2500 years ago where positivist research is presented as rationalization rather than proof or falsification. Not to mention that even their own research only showed a 75% rate on a sample size of 16...
    – haxor789
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:39
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For the sake of argument, I'll assume you hold to a moral principle that respects a human's right to life, with the caveat that this right is suspended if you point a gun at someone. This could come in the form of humanism or you could appeal to some religion or whatever.


Nations are just the result of a bunch of groups of individuals agreeing where somewhat-arbitrarily lines should be drawn on a map.

So as an abstract moral principle, it wouldn't really make sense to allow a nation to do what it wants unimpeded, when you wouldn't allow a city, a family or an individual to do the same.

Although morality is bound by practical limitations. One could potentially allow nations to do their own thing on the agreement that they would also allow you to do your own thing (if you don't expect you'd otherwise be allowed to do your own thing), and forcefully trying to stop other nations from doing their thing would cost a lot of lives (such that it may not outweigh the lives you'd save, if you'd even end up saving those lives). A reasonable and commonly adopted exception to this is the same exception that applies for individuals: if you infringe on the right to exist of other nations, your own right to exist may not be respected.

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"Nation" has multiple meanings. One meaning is something like a tribe or clan, a group of related people. I'll assume you don't mean that, because then your question would amount to whether genocide is always wrong. Another possible meaning is whether a particular government of a region has a right to exist. There are various philosophies on that, but the principle enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence is this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it...

A third possible meaning, and the one you probably have in mind is a group of people occupying a specific territory and organized into a sovereign state. How can such a nation cease to exist? Well, the people can be killed or driven out, or the nation can be conquered and subjugated, so that even though the same people may be living there, they no longer have a sovereign state.

In this last sense, I think rather than asking if such a nation has a right to exist, it is clearer to ask under what conditions it is permissible for another state or power to kill or drive out the people or to subjugate them. Western thought generally holds that it is never permissible to do this to a nation that is peaceful and inoffensive. The nation in question must have taken violent or aggressive actions to endanger the welfare of the state that proposes to attack it in order to justify an attack.

This notion of a justified war is by no means universal, though. It arose out of Christian thought and was adopted by the Enlightenment thinkers but is often rejected even in the West (as we have seen from all of the people siding with Russia and Hamas in the recent wars). Outside of the West there are very few who accept it. I get the impression that Japan has largely adopted this view but I can't think of any other country without a Christian heritage that does. Israel adopts this notion, but Israel has a Christian heritage in that much of its population are descended from people who spent centuries in Christian countries.

For most of the world and most of history, including some nominally Christian countries like Russia, however no justification is needed to attack another country other than that you think you can win and you see some benefit to your country in doing so. To people who think like this, the only thing that gives a nation a right to exist is the power to defend itself.

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The United Nations is still considering whether or waging aggressive war should be declared a war crime. That being so, it seems that current international law does not require nations to be peaceful. Nations have the right to attack in pre-emptive defence, which can also be construed as waging aggressive war. It has also been pointed out that the UN values national sovereignty over human rights. This is the danger of self-determination of nations. Under current international law, every established, sovereign nation has the right to exist. A more fundamental question would be "Should nations have the right to exist, even if they oppress their citizens and threaten their neighbours?". Some political systems have promoted internationalism, recognising that human rights are more important than national sovereignty.

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Technically a nation is just a large collective of people that agree that their they are in a group relationship with each other due to their common, language, heritage, culture, customs, tradition or whatnot.

So they exist as long as they affirm this group relation and they would seize to exist if the individuals constituting it no longer do that or no longer exist. That alone usually wouldn't require a "right to exist" in the first place as it doesn't interfere with other people outside of that group.

So what you probably refer to is likely not a "nation", but a "nation STATE". That is a nation that claims for itself the right to self-determination, usually including a plot of land of their own in which they can exercise political autonomy.

So I'm not so sure about that one:

Throughout human history, at any point in time, the Earth has been a mixed bag of nations that were either peaceful towards its neighbors and nations that were aggressive towards their neighbors.

Tribes have existed for a long time, but it's not self-evident that a tribe necessarily has it's own state/country (roaming people) or political autonomy (national minorities within a state) and states/empires have existed for quite some time but it's not self-evident that they identified as one nation or as a group at all and not just as property of the king/aristocracy. But the idea of nationalism and nation states is as far as I know a pretty recent one.

The other problem is that "right to ..." is a meaningless term without a context, because rights are agreements between individuals within an explicit or implicit group. So in order for rights to make sense you need other entities that could honor or violate these rights and they must be able to understand and agree with these rights otherwise it's meaningless waste of paper and just a survival of the fittest (not the strongest but whatever works best at staying alive and autonomous in the presence of other entities that either don't care about that or in the worst case are actively hostile to that idea). And if you enter the stage of supernational or international law things get really complicated because there is no superior authority being able to dictate and enforce laws and neither do these different factions consider themselves one group that mutually wants to stick together, so it's a complicated mess of agreements that largely only hold value as long as they are mutually agreed upon because if one side thinks they violate their interests they could technically just leave the contract and who's going to stop them?

So the best you can do against such destructive behavior by individual states is to form a union of states that codifies mutually agreed upon laws and expels rule breakers or threatens collective actions against them in case of rule breaking. The problem is that this is a double edged sword, on the one hand it's great for upholding mutually agreed upon rules, on the other hand states like to leverage the power of that group while simultaneously fear they could end up on the receiving end of that power. So often enough institutions like the United Nations are rather tame with regards to their ability to punish the behavior of states. Also the the power stems from their size so they like to incorporate most if not all nations and as a consequence don't can't afford to expel members so that their acceptance for behavior is huge and their power to restrict is often limited. Not to mention that larger states still play by different rules than smaller states. Like the permanent members of the security council can fight illegal wars and block resolutions condemning that and if you can form blocks of states and alliances that are effective enough on their own to not require the rest of the states you could ignore their legislation altogether.

So international law is somewhere between anarchism (leaderless coexistence/cooperation) and chaos and anomie (survival of the fittest/might makes right etc) .

And with regards to who is allowed to join these clubs of states. Well... That's actually not at all clear to begin with. It's not even clear what IS a state. Like there are definitions like you'd need a land, a population and a government to be a state, while others argue that they are states and if they they you are one two then you are one, there are countries that recognize other countries as such while others deny them the respective status, there are de facto states that de jure aren't and vice versa. And technically you can just assert that status and if no one challenges it you'll likely become a state by tradition at one point.

Like what if a nation within a state decides to secede from that state and form it's own nation state? Is that a self-determination of a new nation or is that an act of criminality that the existing state has the right to determine by itself and to surpress if they see fit? Both could argue with "self-determination".

And technically a warring nation could be ousted, condemned and punished but practically that depends on it's size and how many will join that. Also while on paper the "just war theory" is a nice thing (arguing that only self-defense and the like are just reasons to go to war). Just look at the Nazis and you'll find that a fanatically racist country could just make up a boogeyman of which it is so damn threatened that they formulate a right to proactive "self-defense" in other words a war of aggression with dimensions of a genocide. It's a very dubious claim to be made, but it nonetheless fulfills the technical limits of "self-defense" even if the threat is just a subjective feeling. If there is no objective institution to judge it comes down to the winners and fingers crossed it's not the fanatic morons.

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